Arsal, Lebanon – A week after the Lebanese judiciary issued an arrest warrant for an influential Salafist sheikh in connection with the abduction of 27 Lebanese soldiers, negotiations appear stalled over their release.
Sheikh Mustafa al-Hujeiri is accused of helping the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra to abduct the soliders three months ago.
“The soldiers were kept in here, just above the hospital,” Hujeiri told Al Jazeera three days before the warrant was issued, gesturing from his plush, third-floor living room in the hilltop town of Arsal.
On October 14, a military judge charged Hujeiri with belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra and publicly calling for jihad against the Lebanese army, as well as for sheltering Syrian fighters at his hospital.
There Lebanese soldiers are being held somewhere in the Qalamoun mountain range, which runs along Lebanon’s border with Syria.
In August, five days of clashes in Arsal killed over 100 fighters and civilians. The conservative Committee of Muslim Scholars brokered a tense truce on August 7, but Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL made off with the army and police captives from Hujeiri’s house.
Last month, ISIL decapitated two of their hostages, and Jabhat al-Nusra shot one in the head, as a threat against the stalled talks.
“Jabhat al-Nusra wanted to send a message that if you are doing this to our people, we can kill. They said – we decide when to make a battle, you don’t do it for us,” explained Hujeiri.
Despite his arrest warrant, Hujeiri still moves around the town of Arsal freely. A Sunni-majority town of 35,000 residents largely sympathetic to the Syrian rebellion, it is considered a relative safe haven for twice that number of refugees.
“Hujeiri owns institutions and is in charge of Syrian refugee camps. He is out of the hands of the Lebanese state,” said retired army general Elias Farhat. “As far as I know he is still in that area. He is an absentee.”
Army checkpoints ring the remote area in the Qalamoun foothills, and have blocked the traditional smuggling paths used as fighter supply lines.
As the cold winter weather sets in, hundreds of ISIL, Jabhat al-Nusra and Free Syrian Army fighters are stuck at the top of the mountain range, hemmed in by the Syrian army on one side, the Lebanese army on the other, and a Hezbollah presence on both.
If a swap was done today, other people will be taken hostage tomorrow and it will have serious ramifications for the Lebanese state if they end up dead. Also, if fighters are allowed to stay during the winter, at a certain point you will have a very, very big threat
“It’s true that Arsal is besieged,” said Syrian doctor Kassem Zein at the town’s field hospital.
He added that the fighters were battling in the mountains around Flita now. “For ten days we are unable to get any of the injured here.”
“Two days ago there was an injured Syrian who they tried to get through the checkpoint, but he was not allowed to pass unless three hostages were released. So he died.”
The priority for both ISIL and al-Nusra fighters right now is fighting for a safe haven, like Arsal, on lower ground before winter, but their motives differ. Jabhat al-Nusra is focused on gaining a spot to resupply to fight the Syrian regime, while ISIL is searching for a foothold in Lebanon.
Using the hostages as bargaining chips, al-Nusra and ISIL are demanding the army open the roads from the Qalamoun mountains into Arsal, and for the release of Islamist prisoners from Roumieh prison.
“I doubt the prisoner swap will take place,” said Ahmad Moussalli, a political studies professor at the American University of Beirut, who thinks a military operation to free the hostages could happen instead.
“If a swap was done today, other people will be taken hostage tomorrow and it will have serious ramifications for the Lebanese state if they end up dead. Also, if fighters are allowed to stay during the winter, at a certain point you will have a very, very big threat.”
Moussalli thinks al-Nusra is now looking towards a territorial swap. “What we are seeing are plans to invade certain Shiite-populated areas and gain territory in places like Brital. These areas are not hospitable to attackers, but they think they can make a better deal.”
Brital, a town on the Syrian side of the Lebanese border near Baalbek, was attacked by al-Nusra front on October 5, killing 14 of their own fighters, and three from Hezbollah.
So far Saudi Arabia, Iran and the US have led the pledges to equip the Lebanese army. However, the largest $3bn package has been stalled by donor Saudi Arabia and partner France, amidst claims they are waiting for a new Lebanese president to be elected, to lessen the likelihood of the weapons falling under Hezbollah control.
The army, regarded as a venerated, non-politicised institution across Lebanon, emphasises the equal sectarian makeup of its forces. The army command has downplayed recent defections of soldiers to militant groups.There are six soldiers who defected to al-Nusra front.
As tensions around the clashes and the hostage standoff grow, a number of refugees risk the return back to Syria. There is a growing hostility from Arsal residents to their guests.
“At the beginning the number of refugees were less and residents were supportive of revolution and helped them,” explained Doctor Kassem Zein.
“But as numbers increased so did the consumption of water, electricity, homes and jobs, which caused problems. After clashes with the Lebanese army, there were a lot of tensions which we are working to repair.”
This month the Lebanese army conducted pre-dawn mass arrests of Syrian male refugees outside their tents in Arsal. “Attacking Syrian refugees won’t bring back the abducted soldiers or solve the country’s refugee crisis,” said Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East and North Africa in their report.
“The attacks on Syrian refugees will only increase their misery and add to instability and insecurity in Lebanon.”
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Mohammed, a 41-year old man from Homs, was one of those arrested. He has a bruise under his eye, and is frightened to talk.
He said that when the army freed him after three weeks in the Christian town of Zahle, across the Beka’a Valley, a mob of around 20 civilians dragged him off the street.
“They beat me, hit me on my face and accused me of being Da’ash,” he said quietly. But many Lebanese believe these cases of army abuse are isolated, and that they dangerously feed into the narrative of groups, helping to radicalise Sunni populations in cities like Tripoli and Sidon.
Lebanon continues to suffer from car bombs attacks, and the army has uncovered hundreds of sleeper cells.
In the bustling Shiite village of Lubwe, at the foot of the hill leading to Arsal, olive camouflaged army trucks and soldiers head to man checkpoints.
“The militants try to make it look like Hezbollah is controlling the army, which is wrong,” said Husain Masry, a local dentist. “ISIL and al-Nusra are trying their best to create a split between Shia and Sunni, and turn people against Hezbollah.”
“We are scared that the militants will come over the mountains and kill us,” said Abdul Amhaz, a long time member of Lebanon’s Communist Party and the brother to Lubwe’s mayor. “It was calm before the war, and the sectarian aspect was not present, we used to have friends there [Arsal].”
“If they execute any more soldiers, the situation is going to become increasingly tense,” he warned. “This has become a military area and they are considering an operation. I feel safe here.”